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PEAPACK-GLADSTONE, NJ-Last fall, Somerset County spent $22 million to buy a500-acre reserve, including a sprawling 40-room mansion, from the estate of KingHassan II of Morocco. Hassan rarely, if ever, used the property, but Sir RichardBranson, the flamboyant founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, has a plan thatcould bring plenty of international jet setters to the site in New Jersey’sexclusive Somerset Hills horse country.

Earlier this week, representatives of Branson’s far-flung transportation,travel, entertainment and financial empire trotted out details of a plan thatwould turn the mansion and 80 acres of the site into a world-class hotel, spaand restaurant. The property would become part of Branson’s Limited Editionhotel portfolio, which includes the privately owned Necker Island in the BritishVirgin Islands and the Ulusaba private game reserve in South Africa.

As laid out to the Somerset County Board of Freeholders on Tuesday night byarchitect Christopher Belknap of the Newport Beach, CA-based firm of Wimberly,Allison, Tong & Goo, the resort would include a 60-room boutique hotel, athree-dining-room restaurant and a 25,000-sf health spa. No price tag was put onthe project.

Some of the hotel rooms would be situated in the existing mansion, but most ofthem would be located in a 70,000-sf, architecturally-compatible expansiontacked onto the mansion. Also part of the plan is a business conference center,which would be fashioned out of one of the on-site carriage houses.

The working title for the project, incidentally, is “The Spa at Natirar,” takenfrom the name of King Hassan’s now-former estate. And while the name seemsexotic, it’s merely the reverse spelling of Raritan, the name of the river thatflows nearby and the surrounding Raritan Valley.

Branson’s organization is targeting early 2006 for an opening date, according toBelknap, but the approval process could be tricky, according to observers.Somerset County officials will have the final say on the project, because thecounty itself owns the property. The former estate is also located in threeseparate towns–most of the site, including the mansion, is located here, butsubstantial acreage is actually within the borders of the towns of Bedminsterand Far Hills.

Besides the county’s ok for the usage, the project at the very least requires areview of site plans by Peapack-Gladstone planning officials, as well as azoning change from its current 10-acre residential classification. Also to beworked out are ownership details and/or a long-term lease of the mansion and80-acre site to Branson’s Virgin empire.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Belknap admitted at the presentation, a referenceto the various hurdles that need to be cleared. “But what we will create will beof the highest quality.”

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